The Kentucky Holy Land
Sacred Sites of Kentucky and Southern Indiana
If you love old churches, and if you want a flavor of the history of the Catholic Church in America after it crossed the eastern mountains and expanded into the American frontier, you will want to add to your library Clyde F. Crews’s lovely book, A Benediction of Place: Historic Catholic Sacred Sites of Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
With its predominance of photographs, it is a beautiful coffee-table book; yet its text, maps, and foreword by the late centenarian historian Dr. Thomas D. Clark make it much more substantial in content than a merely decorative volume. Rather, it is a book to pore over, to meditate upon, to reminisce with, and definitely to carry in the car as the guidebook for outings to track down priceless old churches.
Fr. Crews, a theology professor at Bellarmine University in Louisville and priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, does not intend to present a work of scholarship. He instead offers a book of “experiences, images and impressions” that capture the deeply Catholic essence of the Midwest and Upper South, represented by Kentucky and Southern Indiana. Perusing this book, one grasps in both the photos and the text the enormity of the Catholic presence in this country before World War II. Even though America was largely Protestant in its founding, the Catholic strain that soon wove its way into the tapestry of the American landscape sat—and still sits—comfortably and familiarly within the culture of religious faith in the cities and towns of Middle America. Catholic roots run deep in much of that region. Catholic faith and culture are at home there; they fit their place, and their place fits them.
Fr. Crews’s choice of title, A Benediction of Place, aptly sets the universal theme particularized in this book. A benediction, a blessing, a goodness invoked or called forth does indeed sanctify the place and people over which the blessing is pronounced. At the same time, a place itself, to which in our incarnate world a people are particularly attached, is a benediction, a blessing to the people who love it. When the place is a church, the blessing it provides its people becomes a clear picture of how faith inspires the local culture of a community. When the church is a Catholic church, then the benediction of place is inextricably united to the presence in that place of Christ in the Eucharist. Thus the Catholic churches, monasteries, and shrines of Kentucky and Southern Indiana that are the places of this book depict in the fullest possible way the benediction, the blessing that permeates a place when God himself dwells there. Thus these handsome old churches, the work of so many hands, strike a comforting chord in the modern heart that so craves permanence, continuity, and a home with foundations both here and in heaven.
As a Hoosier born and reared in Indianapolis, a former resident of Southern Indiana and a current resident of Kentucky, I find old familiar faces among the cathedrals and churches of such cities as Bardstown, Louisville, Covington, Vincennes, Evansville, and Indianapolis, and among the rural churches, abbeys, and motherhouses such as those at St. Meinrad, Mariah Hill, Ferdinand, and Napoleon in Indiana, and at Springfield, Gethsemani, St. Catharine, and Melbourne in Kentucky.
Of the approximately 20,000 Catholic parishes in the United States, nearly 300 of those are in Kentucky. Another 100 or so are in Southern Indiana, south of Indianapolis. Fr. Crews showcases a selection of the historic or landmark churches of the region, many of which were built before World War I. He spares us, therefore, a view of the pedestrian auditorium-style churches of the last forty years, reminding us simply by their absence how much our historic old churches, whether grand or simple, provide us a satisfying sense of the transcendent that is lost in too many of our present parish churches.
Among the treasure trove of sacred sites in Fr. Crews’ book, the section that ranks among the most fascinating is the chapter on the Kentucky Holy Land, the seat of the first inland diocese of the Catholic Church. Other than Vincennes and a sprinkling of spots evangelized by the French Jesuit explorer missionaries, there is no Catholic area west of the Baltimore Diocese that is older than the Kentucky Holy Land. Comprised of the three historic counties of Marion, Nelson, and Washington in central Kentucky, not far from Louisville, and dotted with the earliest sacred sites in the region, the Kentucky Holy Land was settled by Catholics from Maryland, beginning in the 1780s. It was once part of the Diocese of Bardstown, established, along with the Dioceses of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, by Pope Pius VII on the same day in 1808. This original diocese of the West was enormous, running from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi and from Michigan to Tennessee. From the Diocese of Bardstown, centered around the St. Joseph Protocathedral, eventually sprang more than thirty dioceses, including Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Nashville.
For an insight into what Fr. Crews calls the “spiritual geography” of the earliest scene of the Catholic Church in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, a good beginning is a leisurely, contemplative reading of A Benediction of Place, coupled with a promise to oneself to tour some of these sacred sites.
Anne Husted Burleigh is a free lance writer, the author of two books and numerous articles for a variety of journals. She lives on a farm in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, overlooking the Ohio River, near Cincinnati. She is married to Bill Burleigh, a long-time journalist, and they have three children and seven grandchildren.